Sunday Morning! “Some Of Us Are Very Hungry Now” by Andre Perry
There’s not much difference- or maybe not enough– between a newcomer and an interloper. Neither of them quite knows if they belong, or if so, how they belong, what the codes are, and to avoid being called out as a stranger. Andre Perry is a newcomer- well, Some Of Us Are Very Hungry Now (2019) is his first book anyway- and his essays all seem to touch on that state of not-quite-fitting, standing askew and askance from the culture wherever he is, against the wall in that dark corner at the very back of the room, the one that is traditionally reserved for writers.
Perry is definitely a writer. His essays are meandering and misshapen, slippery and jagged, they wriggle and bite. But, read them for a bit, sit with them and get to know them, and you find they’re also gentle and wise. I mean, it’s a bit hard to get a bead on them, but that’s how identity is, right? I don’t know if I fully connected with them either, yet that seems appropriate- they’re almost all about not-quite-connecting: with places, with others, with self. Every one of them still left behind shards that lodged in my memory.
Part of the difficulty, no doubt, is because I’m white and Perry is black and many of the essays are about that schizophrenic state of being black and Being Black in the eyes of others, really performing blackness for others. When white readers read black writers, there are certain things they want to read, over and over and over again- or, conversely, never at all- and he’s just not that writer. The essays zig when they’re supposed to zag and wander down alleyways they’re supposed to walk past.
In the first essay, for instance, Perry recalls going to school at the prestigious Saint Alban’s prep school and getting called out: as not-quite-masculine by the other boys; as not-quite-black by white hip hop fans, but also by a bullying black neighbor; and perhaps as not-quite-heterosexual by “friends” who don’t have a problem with gay people, honest! And then, he muses on the malleability of words, how two different words- each with two syllables and double g’s in the middle- can be used for “sowing unity or drawing blood depending which side of the blade is used and, of course, who happens to be using it.”
But then the essay is also about his moving to San Francisco after school and finding friendship in the Castro because “even when they know I am straight they don’t care because they think, he’s black and he’s been through enough.” Nevertheless, he can’t quit the anti-gay language himself: “I need my hate words too.” And then he wrestles with gay bashing in the black community, where it comes from, and what these words mean “in the context of white supremacy.” Why do certain people love to hear black artists bash gays? Why do certain black men feel the pressing need to do so? These aren’t easy questions and Perry is refreshingly not writing to make himself look good.
But, the essay also has a Chris Rock bit, a fake film script, emails written to and from his “gay diary” and a sketch in which Perry seriously pisses of Oprah Winfrey and gets kicked off her show! It’s a tricky, fragmented essay that raises more questions than it answers, but the third time I read it, I realized how well-constructed it is. For the record, I’ve read at least a few hundred essays in the last year and there are very few I’ve read three times (and don’t feel done with them yet).
The following essays all interact with one another and continue many of the same themes: masculinity, race, sex, identity, money, and other interconnected slippery themes. I might have also stood a bit askance from the essays because they’re all about a particular time in life- being in one’s twenties and early thirties, and trying to make some sense of Who I Am and Who You Are, and also get drunk and laid in the meantime. And feeling “vacant and broken” as Perry puts it. Thankfully, I feel that I have, finally, crossed that river of blood into secure middle age, and so I can recall those questions, but I no longer feel the need to ask them. Nevertheless, if you too have survived your twenties, ask yourself if this is not spot on:
“Each of us walked with our own seemingly foolproof logic, expecting the rest of the world to understand and obey the rules of our perspectives. But it was each one of us that would need to adapt or be crushed by the motion of life.”
The book is also about places; the first section chronicles Perry’s 20s in the city by the bay. San Franciscans all romanticize their city, but it never really loves them back, not for long. Perry was there in the early 2000’s as the “urban prospectors” started driving up the city’s property values and rounding off its edges. I remember it in the 90s, when human beings could still afford to live there, before what he calls “socioeconomic cleansing” (somewhere or other, I just called it economic cleansing)- but dislocation is now our universal experience. None of us quite fit.
Perry’s search for a place that fits him and words that will do his bidding leads him to the Midwest and from there to Hong Kong and back, finally landing him in graduate school, that home for lost souls. I’ve written before about my ambivalence towards MFA programs- they’re ideal for making contacts, but I’m not sure that putting a cover price on entry into the Community of Writers is not a pretty bad idea. Perry has a way with words, makes sharp observations, and doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere; he could not have avoided being a great writer. But, would we have ever read this if he was a cab driver with a G.E.D.?
Nevertheless, his essays resounded most loudly, for me, when he got to grad school in Iowa City, the place where he is most obviously an interloper. I know this place, having never been there. I certainly know the small town, “pleasant on the surface,” a “warm bed” where you meet people that care deeply about art and literature, and all the ideas one can find in the middle of nowhere; but also filled with the same flocks of drunk fraternity brothers, where racism leaps out at startling moments- Perry likens it to an April Fool’s prank- with the same archipelago of dreary sports bars, and the endless boozing to lower the volume of feeling stifled in life, living with one’s own failure and buying it drinks.
I’ve been there and I am increasingly aware of the danger in life of letting a layover turn into a final destination. In these essays, Perry is forever on the move and you never really know if he’s found home. There’s an unresolved quality to the essays that feels very appropriate for these times and places. It feels like we’re all newcomers in strange new territories. And probably interlopers too.
So, what are YOU reading, watching, pondering, playing, or creating this week?